We Keep Buying Bottled Water Because We Fear Death

Ads for bottled water make it seem safer and purer than normal tap water, researchers say.

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Feb 2 2018, 7:09pm

Image: Shutterstock / Composition: Rachel Pick

In a popular 2013 commercial for Evian bottled water, people walk past a window and see themselves as babies in the reflection. Nestlé, meanwhile, uses the phrase “Drink Better. Live Better” in its Pure Life campaigns. The message seems to be that bottled water is somehow safer, purer, or more controlled than tap water—and that we can be perennially young, carefree, and far from death by consuming it.

It’s not really true, so why do we continue to buy bottled water—when, for many of us in Canada and the US, good clean water comes out of the tap for free? Even more than playing on popular fears about “toxins” and the like, at a subconscious level, these advertising campaigns appeal to our repressed fear of death and “our desire for immortality,” according to Stephanie Cote of the University of Waterloo.

Canadians will spend $3.3 billion ($2.6 billion USD) on bottled water this year, according to a recent study in the peer-reviewed journal Applied Environmental Education & Communication, which looks at the human psychology behind the popularity of bottled water. (In the US, by contrast, consumers spent nearly USD $16 billion in 2016.) “We wanted to find out why Canadians spend their money on bottled water when Canada has exceptional tap water,” co-author Cote, who conducted the research while a graduate student at the university, said in an interview.

The study analyzed 21 bottled water marketing campaigns, including advertisements, websites, photographs, and videos, through the lens of something called terror management theory in social psychology. That theory says we repress our conscious and unconscious fear of death by generating feel-good worldviews and beliefs that keep the existential terror at bay. These defenses influence our behaviours, our self-esteem, and outlook. It’s these defenses that ads for bottled water play on, according to the study.

"Pro-bottle water advertisements rely heavily on branding, celebrity, and feel-good emotions that trigger our group identities and patriotism,” said co-author Sarah Wolfe, researcher at Waterloo's Faculty of Environment. Those kinds of ads appeal to people whose self-esteem is strongly based on physical appearance, fitness levels, material and financial wealth, class, and status, Wolfe said in a statement.

Read More: Abolish Bottled Water

Bottled water advertisers use a variety of approaches to appeal to different groups. For parents, a pristine natural setting emphasizes purity and the absence of pollution. For the health conscious, there are scenes of fit people engaged in running or sports. But in most cases, the takeaway is the same: Bottled water represents health, purity, renewal, and safety.

In some places, there are legitimate concerns about tap water—the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan or high levels of bacteria in over 100 of Canada’s First Nations communities, for example. But for the majority of Canadians, tap water is safe, convenient, and cheap.

So, how can environmentally concerned groups fight back against the potent emotional appeal in ads for bottled water? In trying to get that message across, anti-bottled water campaigns mostly appeal to a person’s ethics (the knowledge that bottled water is bad for the planet) and pocketbook (it’s more expensive than tap water), the study says.

Those campaigns would do better to appeal to our feel-good emotions, just like the bottled water companies do: We are not as rational as we think we are, said Cote.

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